Category Archives: low tech solutions

What is a Keyhole Garden?

Global Service Corps photo of Tanzanian keyhole garden.

A keyhole garden is a type of raised bed that contains compost and it is higher in the middle so that water flows into the growing bed area. These gardens are being taught to African farmers and they are becoming more popular in drier regions such as parts of Texas. They are popular among permaculturists, too. The following video explains how to make one.

20 Organic Recipes and Products to Control Bugs, Pests and Weeds

Photo by Andy Potter.

It is that season when those of us who garden or farm try to protect our produce and crops from a very long list of pests. Below, I’ve compiled a list of 20 products, hints, and household recipes which may be useful to you in combatting the pests and weeds in your garden.

1. Orchard/Apple tree pest recipe: You need an old cleaned plastic gallon milk jug. Cut a 3 inch diameter hole on the side-top, leaving the jug’s handle intact. Add to the jug a banana peel, 1 cup of sugar, and 1 cup of apple cider vinegar. Add a few cups of hot water and mix until the sugar dissolves. Hang 1-3 of these prepared jugs near the trunk of your apple tree. Replace the solution as needed throughout the summer, starting early. (My sister-in-law swears by this and has used this recipe for 20 years in our farm’s wonderful old McIntosh Apple tree.) Try on any other fruit tree, too, especially pear and cherry.

2. To kill weeds use a 10% vinegar spray (is about twice as strong as household vinegar). You may add a little soap, too.

3. Clove oil works to kill weeds and bugs. It is best for wide-leafed weeds. To make clove oil weed spray, pour 10-20 drops of clove essential oil into an empty spray bottle. Fill the remainder of the spray bottle with tap water, close tightly and shake well. Use as needed. Clove oil has fungicidal, herbicidal and insecticidal properties in addition to being a weed killer.

4. Herbicidal and/or insecticidal soap based products such as “Safer” are available commercially. Non-toxic herbicide sprays are more effective if you spray the weeds when they are young and during full sun. Get the tops and the undersides of the leaves.

5. Dried or liquid molasses can be used to kill weeds and insect pests including fire ants. It also enriches the soil. Apple cider vinegar and molasses have been used together to fight fungal diseases.

6. Fill a milk jug half-full with water and add 1/2 cup of milk. Use in a spray bottle to control powdery mildew.

7. Home Recipe for Bug Spray #1: 1 teaspoon vegetable oil + 1 teaspoon dish soap + 1 teaspoon baking soda. Add to a quart of water in spray bottle and shake before using for aphids and other bugs.

8. Home Recipe for Bug Spray #2: Mix several cloves of crushed garlic, ¼ cup canola oil, 3 tablespoons hot pepper sauce and ½ teaspoon liquid soap in 1 gallon of water, mix well. Put into spray bottle, shake well before using.

9. Home Recipe for Bug Spray #3: Blenderize or finely chop one garlic bulb and one small onion. Add 1 teaspoon of powdered cayenne pepper and mix with 1 quart of water. Steep 1 hour, strain through cheesecloth, then add 1 tablespoon of liquid dish soap to the strained liquid. Mix well. Spray plants, including leaf undersides. Store the mixture for up to 1 week in a labeled, covered container in the refrigerator.

10. Use boiling water to kill weeds in sidewalk cracks.

11. 4-Legged Pests: 1) Keep out deer, rabbits, raccoons, and cats by placing rags soaked in white vinegar on stakes around your vegetables. Re-soak the rags every 7-10 days. 2) For deer, blend 2 eggs and a cup or two of cold water at high speed. Add this mixture to a gallon of water and let it stand for 24 hours. After 24 hours, spray on foliage. The egg mixture does not wash off easily, but re-application 2-3 times a season may be needed. 3) For deer, mix together 1 tablespoon of baking powder + 1 egg yolk + 1 litre of water. Spray plants every 2-3 weeks. 4) Use the ScareCrow motion sensor water sprinkler. 5) Use Nite Guard Solar lights which are motion sensored to scare away your night time visitors.

12. Tobacco as pest repellent for caterpillars, aphids, other insects, rabbits, and slugs: Soak 1/2 cup chewing tobacco in 1 cup Listerine mouth wash plus 2 cups water for 1-3 days. Strain, and spray affected plants.

13. Marigolds and nasturtiums help control bugs by attracting them, so intersperse these flowers through out the vegetable and squash garden. For the squash bug, try to plant resistant varieties such as the butternut, acorn, zucchini, and cheese squashes, or set traps, such as cardboard or flat rocks under the plants. They will hide under the cardboard or rock, and then you can destroy them.

14. Use salt or salt water to kill slugs.

15. BT spray works well for worm prevention for the cruciferous vegetables like broccoli, Brussels sprouts and cabbage. If you see those little white butterflies in your garden, get the BT spray out. (See top photo) Bioinsecticide BTSD spray works for very young potato beetles, too.

16. Mulches: To kill or prevent weeds, use corn meal, or, corn gluten meal mulch which also provides nitrogen fertilizer while smothering out the weed seeds. Chipped wood mulch 2-6 inches thick helps control weeds. Gravel mulch works well for xeriscape plantings. Hay or straw mulch is good in the garden, but remember it may contain seeds. Shredded leaf mulch (cold mulch) in the fall improves soil microbiota and fungi. Or, organic farmers commonly use black plastic (mulch) around row crops to prevent weeds.

17. Flame weed propane torches can be used to kill weeds.

18. For mechanical weed removal, experiment to find your favorite hoe or tool. There are many kinds on the market, with both long and short handles. I love the short handled Japanese Nejiri Weeder hoe. A great gardener friend prefers the winged weeder; another, the stirrup, or scuffle hoe.

19. Row crop cover fabric helps control insect pests. It may be used on potatoes or squash or any crop being plagued by insects.

20. For a bug repellent for yourself as you work in the garden, try mixing lavender with vinegar. Put dried lavender into a bottle and add 2 cups of vinegar. Let set for a week to infuse. Strain to remove lavender. Dab on skin when working outdoors. For a natural fly repellent for cattle, try pyrethrin (an extract of chrysanthemums) sprays. Or, make your own natural fly sprays by combining one cup vegetable oil, two cups vinegar, one cup water and one tablespoon essential oil (clove, eucalyptus, mint, citrus or citronella).

YOUR TURN… If you have any favorite weed and pest remedies, please leave in the comments below to share with other organic growers. Let us know what does or doesn’t work best for you.

An Interview with Cornell’s Dr. Erika Styger about the System of Crop Intensification (SRI-Rice)

Mechanical weeding in a rice field using SRI in Punjab, India. Photo credit: Cornell SRI-Rice.

K.M.: The following is a rare, up-to-date, and exceptional interview of the very busy Dr. Erika Styger, Director of the SRI International Network and Resources Center (SRI-Rice) of Cornell University, about the System of Rice (or Crop) Intensification.

Q: Let’s start out by explaining what SRI is, because many people still have never heard of it, even though the techniques have been known for many years.

The System of Rice Intensification, known as SRI is an agro-ecological methodology for increasing the productivity of irrigated rice by changing the management of plants, soil, water and nutrients. SRI originated in Madagascar in the 1980s and is based on the cropping principles of significantly reducing plant population, improving soil conditions and irrigation methods for root and plant development, and improving plant establishment methods.

The benefits of SRI have been demonstrated in over 50 countries and include: 20%-100% or more increased yields, up to a 90% reduction in required seed, and up to 50% water savings. SRI principles and practices have been adapted for rainfed rice as well as for other crops (such as wheat, sugarcane and teff, among others), with yield increases and associated economic benefits.

SRI, or the System of Rice Intensification has made a big difference in the lives of 4-5 million smallholder farmers world wide. It is a system which offers a good way to develop more productive agriculture while using ecological methods. SRI is an “open-source” method with no ownership and no patents.

There is no money to be made by large industry and companies, just the farmers. Farmers can tell you how well it has worked for them; they are the experts with this system. With a bottom-up solution like this, it is evident that it takes more time to be known. There is also still little funding going towards spreading the knowledge about SRI, supporting farmers and collecting and learning from the success stories from the field. It’s the best innovation you never heard about.

Q: The System of Rice Intensification (SRI), which is also called the System of Crop Intensification (SCI), or the System of Root Intensification (SRI), has had great success among small shareholder farmers in many countries around the world. Please describe the various directions being taken with the knowledge of SRI.

SRI was developed through a multi-year observation process and through tests by Father de Laulanie, a French Jesuit missionary in Madagascar in the early 1980s. He synthesized the combination of practices that he called, in French, “le Système de Riziculture Intensive” or SRI. Since the late 1990s, SRI has been validated outside of Madagascar and spread quickly to many countries in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. An essential result was that the applied SRI methodology resulted in improved yields with less inputs in all of the different climates where rice is grown. Since 2005, SRI farmers and technicians, intrigued by the concept of SRI, started to apply the SRI principles to other crops, and thus the System of Crop Intensification (or SCI) emerged through innovation processes directly from the field.

SCI has created very good results with other cereal crops such as finger millet, wheat, the Ethiopian teff, but also with sugar cane, legumes, and vegetable crops. We use ‘SCI’ as a generic term for all other crops besides rice. For a specific crop the term is adapted, for example for wheat, System of Wheat Intensification or SWI is used. The term System of Root Intensification was coined in India, indicating the importance of the root system growth in developing a healthy and productive agriculture. As SRI is a non-proprietary, open-source methodology, new terms are created especially in local languages that often reflect how people relate to the SRI method.

This is fine and we don’t like to comment or insist how people should use the terminology. At SRI-Rice, we decided to keep with the traditional term SRI (System of Rice Intensification) and apply SCI (System of Crop Intensification) as a collective term for all other crops. We also use the acronyms for specific crops, such as SWI for wheat.

Afghanistan rice field – marking planting grid. Photo credit: Cornell SRI-Rice.

Q: While use of the system increases production for farmers, it is still labor intensive. Please comment on the tools, small machinery advancements, and labor involved in using the System of Rice Intensification.

SRI was developed in smallholder farming conditions, which are based until today on manual labor. The optimal use of the recommended SRI practices involves changes in labor allocation and labor use for the different crop management steps, starting from soil preparation, to nursery establishment and management, transplanting, weeding, and fertilization, as well as water management. Being efficient in labor use is always of concern.

If SRI is more labor demanding or not depends on the type of rice cropping system we start out with. There is of course a learning curve for changing the cultivation practices, which takes time and can make SRI in the beginning more time consuming. Once farmers get used to the SRI system, labor requirements are often reduced, and even cited as one of the reasons why farmers adopt SRI – for instance in India. In areas with very small plot sizes and where rural labor is available, farmers have little problems to switch to SRI. Where labor is expensive and rural workers find better paying jobs outside of agriculture, the development and use of tools and machines becomes an important factor. Also, in areas with a lot of land, e.g. some places in Africa, farmers are restricted to the available family labor in how much land they cultivate.

With simple tools or machines, farmers would be able to plant larger areas. In areas that are already highly mechanized, such as Latin America, it is a question of developing the right machines, or SRI will not have a chance to be adopted. Another case is Northern Haiti, where rice farming is in the hands of old men. Labor is available but it is not economical to pay for it as the margins of rice production are very small. With higher benefits from the SRI system, rice production can suddenly interest the younger generation to reconsider agriculture. Thus each region and country has its specificity. Labor is part of the equation but more important is the economic return and what needs to happen (including mechanization and other innovations) so that the agricultural systems can benefit from the SRI principles “to produce more with less”.

There are a number of tools and equipment that can facilitate the tasks, such as transplanting or direct seeding, and importantly weeding with manually pushed or motorized weeders. Developing and making appropriate equipment accessible for different farm-sizes, mechanization levels, and climate and soil conditions remains a challenge in many countries. That is why SRI-Rice wants to support an SRI equipment innovators exchange network, which allows innovators to exchange on designing, testing and using new equipment. The goal is to recommend equipment that is appropriate for specific farming situations, and providing information where the equipment can be accessed or acquired.

In Afghanistan field. Photo credit: Cornell SRI-Rice.

Q: Please tell us about studies using this system on wheat. Does it hold promise for wheat production?

SRI principles were applied to wheat first in India in 2005, but then also in Ethiopia and Mali since 2008, and more recently in Nepal. The idea to apply SRI principles to wheat came from SRI-rice farmers and technicians. In these countries, wheat is usually broadcast. Farmers changed the practices by direct seeding one or two seeds per hill planted in line, with about 15-20 centimeter spacing between the hills. Applying organic matter to soil and using a simple hand pushed weeder were the other practices adapted from SRI. The results were and are remarkable, with most often doubling of yields. Where traditionally, farmers would harvest 1.5-2.5 tons per hectare of wheat, with SWI farmers can reach 4-5 tons per hectare.

As wheat is often irrigated in the dry season, it is also possible to reduce the number of irrigations to the crop, as the organic matter improved soils retain the water longer. I have been personally associated with the introduction of SWI to Mali in the Timbuktu region, where I worked for 3 years between 2007-2010. The most impressive difference between SWI and traditionally grown wheat was the elongation of the panicles under SWI, which was almost doubled in size, and by producing fuller and larger grains.

In Northern India, Mali, Ethiopia, and Nepal wheat is a staple crop, mostly planted on small plots. Farmers bake their own chapatti or bread. With doubling yields with SWI, women farmers in Bihar were able to produce a 7-8 month of flour supply for their family, compared to 3-4 months previously. It also seems that SWI is easier to manage than SRI, so for instance in Northern India, the adoption rate is very high.

SWI-grown wheat at harvesting. Lalbojhi, Kailali, Nepal. 2011. Photo credit: Cornell SRI-Rice.

Q: If there are trials going on here in the U.S., can you briefly describe them to us?

SRI trials in the US have only recently started. They are not undertaken by the commercial large-scale rice growers, but by small organic farmers who are looking for ecological and productive innovations. We are aware of a number of tests in South Carolina in this 2013 growing season. We also know of a few organic vegetable farmers in New Jersey and New York who are growing rice for the first time in their environment this year.

Interest in the SRI methodology lies in being able to grow rice in non-flooded and aerobic soil conditions, which is also expected to reduce arsenic uptake for rice. Of course good productivity and producing a healthy crop are other incentives for these farmers to work with the SRI method. It will be interesting to evaluate this year’s trials.

Q: As your research has shown, where do you think the most promising areas are in using this system of crop growing including futuristic applications? Should home gardeners be adding it to their methods?

The SRI system and methodology can be applied to any crop and any system. The combination and application of the principles strives to optimize the resources available to the plant, to minimize stress for the plants, and to give each individual plant its room and environment where it can thrive best in. We are used to such an approach for high value crops but not for grain crops and other field crops. We also are aware today, with climate change and water scarcity in many locations, that the conventional paradigm of intensification that is based on ‘putting more to produce more’ is just not working
for us anymore.

SRI systems teaches us that we can “produce more by using less”. We should learn anew how to work WITH the plants and the environment for allowing them to express their best inherent potential! This has allowed farmers to return to heirloom and old varieties, as they become more productive under SRI and thus can become economically interesting again. SRI is about observation and paying attention to your crop, and it is one of many agro-ecological approaches, concentrating on crop production.

Others, to name a few, are: the integration of livestock with agriculture, conservation agriculture, and agroforestry. SRI is a knowledge-based approach, and once farmers have learned about the new principles, they can become more independent in improving their agriculture. It is fascinating to see the transformation of farmers, for instance in Mali, who have started working with SRI, becoming so much more confident and entrepreneurial in developing their own innovations. We need new approaches and we will not find them in single-bullets, but by working with the agro-ecological system and by putting plants and animals in their best environment.

Q: How much time is involved in training farmers to use this system? Are there any efficient training programs going on which may become a standard?

Ideally farmers are trained practically. This can be done in 3-4 days, where demonstration plots are put in place by the trainees and important practices exercised and discussed directly in the field. Ideally, training of trainer approach is pursued, where the trained farmer teaches other farmers in his or her community, therefore multiplying the outreach. It is advantageous, if the farming community or village community gets organized around how to spread the knowledge best among their fellow farmers.

To obtain the best impact is when a technician can follow up periodically with farmers for 1-2 cropping seasons, in order to adapt the SRI practices to the local farming conditions. Thus, training on SRI practices is knowledge intensive at first to have the best impact. Nevertheless, there are a lot of self-starters out there – who read about SRI and get it implemented. We have a large collection of technical guidelines and manuals on our website for many countries and many languages.

At SRI-Rice we are in the development of an approach for training and data collection that can be widely shared and accessed by anybody who is interested.

Q: Tell us about the research program on SRI-Rice at Cornell. What are your goals? How large is your staff?

The SRI International Network and Resources Center (or SRI-Rice) was established three years ago with support from Jim Carrey’s Better U Foundation (BUF), in response to the increasing importance of SRI practices – an environment-friendly, yield-increasing methodology — around the world. To date, significant productivity improvements have been achieved in over 50 countries.

Our mission is to advance and share knowledge about the System of Rice Intensification and to support networking among interested organizations and individuals around the globe. We would like to see any farmer worldwide being able to access information and obtain knowledge about the SRI system, allowing them to apply the gained knowledge to improve their cropping systems. We focus on improving food security and reducing poverty, therefore concentrate to work with smallholder farmers in Asia, Africa and Latin America.

We built and maintain the largest website on the System of Rice Intensification, which is updated daily. We report on the progress of 50 different countries, we maintain the most complete research database on SRI, we link to extension manuals in many languages, and we publish reports for partners who don’t have a web presence. We also have a large photo and video library.

Additionally, we contribute to analysis, identify trends and write about innovations that emerge from the field. We also support the networking at the global level by linking people and institutions with each other on a daily basis. Beyond that, we are currently developing larger initiatives that respond to identified priorities. These include developing a training and data monitoring approach that can easily be shared with and accessed by interested parties; and, developing and supporting regional initiatives in Latin America, West Africa and Asia.

We like to create regional communities of practice where people can exchange with each other, train and learn from each other, and work on location specific innovations with each other. We are currently in the launching process of the West Africa SRI Initiative, where SRI-Rice will provide technical support to 13 countries. For Latin America, we are currently building up communication in the Spanish language and identifying a community of interested partners. For Asia, it is a matter of linking the already strong national networks with each other for an improved multi-country exchange.

Two other priorities are the development of an international research network and the development of an international mechanization exchange network. We are currently two staff members with part-time support by a senior advisor. We work with students and leverage a lot of work through partners around the world. Our collaborations rely on demand-driven relationships with dedicated people. People, as well as students find us and we identify ways to collaborate, so that they can pursue their projects, research, or other activities.

Nevertheless, we are not enough staff given the high demand and considering what needs to be done. Also, we are not strictly a research program, but rather an outreach and extension program with research components, as indicated in our mission and activities.

Q: Anything you would like to add?

If anybody likes to start or has started working with the SRI methodology for rice or other crops anywhere in the world, or if anybody is interested in supporting SRI-Rice or other SRI activities, we would be happy to hear from you and be connected.

Contact me at eds8@

Thanks for the opportunity to share our work.

Kay McDonald: Thankyou very, very much for your time, Dr. Styger.


Erika Styger is the Director of Programs for SRI-Rice at Cornell. She has a PhD in Crop and Soil Sciences from Cornell University and has over 20 years experience in designing, executing and evaluating research and development programs in Africa. She introduced SRI into four regions of Mali, adapting SRI principals to rainfed and lowland rice and wheat.

This video shows Dr. Styger speaking about SRI-Rice and also about how heirloom and indigenous varieties become more productive when planted with SRI methods.

Here is the home page at Cornell where you may learn more about SRI.

Also, there are many SRI-rice method informational videos available here.

Additional reading: “India’s Rice Revolution”.

Grazing Enthusiast Allan Savory’s TED Talk

I’ve held this TED talk back to put up while I’m away from my desk for a few days, so if you haven’t seen it yet, watch this by Allan Savory. I understand it’s “gone viral”. I’ve featured Savory on this site a number of times before, including this interview by radio ecoshock.

For further reading, Aljazeera did a recent and fine piece about Australian farmers who are using integrated systems somewhat like Savory’s.

And, if you missed my recent and very popular piece about what some innovative North Dakota farmers are doing, it’s here.

Finally, here is a Canadian professor, Dr. Clark of Guelph University on the subject of rotational grazing.

Thirty-five Water Conservation Methods for Agriculture, Farming, and Gardening. Part 4.

Please note that this is the fourth of a special four-part series here at Big Picture Agriculture listing and describing methods for producing more crop per drop in farming. This Part 4 post lists methods 26 through 35.

26. Pumps for Irrigating

It wasn’t until motorized pumps powered by fossil fuels were used to irrigate from underground water sources, that aquifers and groundwater sources could be pumped beyond natural replenishment rates. This has led to unsustainable drops in aquifer levels in India, China, and the U.S.

But, there are simple, nonmotorized methods to pump water from underground sustainably that are immensely valuable to small farmers in undeveloped regions of the world.

Treadle pumps: Bamboo (or metal) treadle water pumps have enabled poor farmers in places like Bangladesh to access groundwater during the dry season. Treadle pumps draw groundwater to the surface using a manually powered suction system. They can be made locally and there have been programs to supply them in certain areas. Today, there are more than two million of these that have been distributed world wide. They can be used to fill containers used for micro-irrigation or bucket drip irrigation systems. These are viewed as a stepping stone between hand lifting water and obtaining motorized pumps.

Hip Pumps: According to KickStart, this $30 pump which began selling in 2008 can irrigate an acre or more. It can pull water from 7 meters and push water an additional 14 meters above the pump. These micro-irrigation pumps are available in Africa, Asia, and Latin America.

Solar Pumps: Solar and wind energy can be used to power pumps for irrigation as can small biomass plants, and micro-hydroelectric plants.

Motorized Pumps: China has been exporting around four million pumps annually, after decreasing the weight and the cost of small irrigation pumps. Now, more than 60 percent of India’s irrigation is being done by smallholder farmers pumping groundwater.

27. Collecting Fog or Mist

Some call it harvesting water from thin air. This ancient practice, evident in archaeology of Israel and Egypt is being revived again today. By using nets strung across mountain passes, or stretched on poles located in foggy areas, gravity collects clean potable water for local residents. Water droplets attach to the netting and run down into gutters beneath the nets. The collected water may be further collected into tubes, taking it to a lower village or point of water storage. One square meter of netting can provide five liters of water per day.

The plastic netting is a coarse woven mesh, used to shade fruit trees. It is inexpensive and readily available. Various collection methods can be constructed, to fit the specific setting.

In addition to gaining potable water for drinking, collecting water from fog can be used for agriculture and starting trees for reforestation, too. Nets have been used to provide direct irrigation to quinoa in South America.

The areas with the best climatic and geographic conditions for collecting seasonal fog include some mountainous areas, the Atlantic coast of southern Africa and South Africa, Oman, Sri Lanka, China, Nepal, Mexico, Kenya, Morocco, Yemen, Guatemala, Chile, Peru, and Ecuador. In Chile, this method has been used for over 30 years.

28. Deficit Irrigation

In deficit irrigation, the goal is to obtain maximum crop water productivity rather than maximum yield. By irrigating less than a crop’s optimal full requirement, you might reduce the yield by 10%, but save 50% of the water. With supplemental irrigation to rainfed crops in dry lands, a little irrigation is selectively applied during rainfall shortages and during the drought-sensitive growth stages of a crop. (These important stages are the vegetative stages and the late ripening period.)

The end goal is to maximize irrigation water productivity, even if it means some loss of production. As a success story example, results from using deficit irrigation have been quite dramatic for wheat production in Turkey.

29. Mycorrhiza Fungus in Soil Can Reduce Plant Water Needs by 25 Percent

Mycorrhiza, which means “root-fungus” grows in healthy soils and functions symbiotically with plants by enhancing the uptake of phosphorus and other nutrients. The fungus attaches to plant roots, increasing the root surface area which comes in contact with the soil. It excretes enzymes which allow it to dissolve soil nutrients, and extends the life of the root.

This fungus increases the drought tolerance of plants and can reduce water needs by 25 percent. It increases the fruit and flowering of plants while reducing the need for water and fertilizer. It also enables plants to grow in salty or contaminated soils and increases the temperature stress tolerance for plants. It helps protect plants from disease, and helps store carbon in the soil. Mycorrhiza has the potential to bring poor and degraded lands back into cultivation.

It is possible to encourage mycorrhiza growth in soils by adding compost to your garden soil, by not using synthetic chemicals, using minimum tillage, rotating crops, and growing cover crops. By cold composting, or mulching your garden with shredded leaves each fall, you can promote optimal Mycorrhizal fungi growth. Or, it can be purchased and added directly to sterile potting soils, or degraded soil.

30. Using Less Water to Grow Rice

Paddy rice consumes far more water than any other cereal crop, although much of this water is recyled. It also is the staple grain for half the people of the world. Three-fourths of the rice produced comes from irrigated fields, and irrigated rice uses up to 39 percent of global water withdrawals for irrigation. It takes about 2,500 litres of water to produce 1kg of rice.

Traditional rice varieties tend to have lower yields and longer crop cycles but they require less fertilizer, use less expensive seeds, and are preferred by consumers, bringing a higher price. Because of higher input costs and lower market values for high-yield rice varieties, farmers often opt to plant traditional rice varieties instead.

Ecologists have labeled five categories of rice plants according to water needs as being rainfed lowland, deep water, tidal wetland, rainfed upland and irrigated rice. Researchers have been investigating improved ways of growing rice with less inputs and/or water.

Below, are some ways found to reduce water use in rice growing.

1. System of Rice Intensification (SRI) (See #5 in this series.)

2. Alternate Wetting and Drying [AWD] lets fields fall dry for a number of days before re-irrigating them, which can maintain yields with 15 to 30 percent of water savings. In Bangladesh, the AWD technique reduced water consumption by 30 to 50 percent.

3. Aerobic Rice is grown in water-scarce regions, without ponded water and saturated soil. It uses 50 percent less water, and produces 20-30 percent less yield. These are high-yielding varieties that grow under non-flooded conditions in non-puddled, unsaturated (aerobic) soil. They rely on irrigation water, greater fertilizer application, and greater use of pesticides. The shorter growth cycle of these varieties enables farmers to grow other crops (rice or other plants) after the rice crop is harvested.

4. New varieties like short-season rice significantly reduce water use. Rice produced 40 to 45 years ago required 160 days from seed to harvest, compared to 135 days for short-season varieties which has reduced the amount of water needed by about 20 percent over the last 30 years.

5. Pioneered by China, hybrid rice – a cross-bred robust variety – has increased land and yield productivity while reducing water use. It is taking China about 1,750 liters of water to produce 1 kilogram of rice as compared to 3,500 liters in India.

6. Genetic modification might be able to improve water efficiency of rice by another 30 to 40 percent.

7. Good land management, using laser leveling of compact soil fields with channels and dikes helps save water in California.

8. In Australia, rice grown with saturated soil culture used 32 percent less irrigation water than conventional methods in wet and dry seasons.

9. ACIAR is supporting trials of permanent raised beds in mixed cropping systems (rice–wheat and other combinations) in India, Pakistan and China.

10. About 13 percent of global rice area is dryland rice. Yields are quite low and it is mostly grown for subsistence. In Southeast Asia, most dryland rice is grown on rolling or mountainous land. Some newer rainfed rice varieties can achieve yields close to those of irrigated fields, however.

11. A newer variety of flood tolerant rice has also been shown to withstand drought better. About 8 percent of the world’s rice is classified as flood prone.

Some of the above methods also reduce methane emissions from rice growing, significantly.

Finally, to achieve more ‘crop per drop,’ wheat and crops that do not grow in flooded areas have the potential to produce food with less water. A rice field takes 2 to 3 times more water than a wheat or corn field. So, it is possible that in the future wheat might supply a growing share of the world’s staple grain.

31. Soil Moisture Sensors

Incorporating soil moisture sensors into an irrigation system is an important tool for water conservation. It not only prevents over-watering, but saves unnecessary pumping costs and helps prevent leaching of fertilizers.

By monitoring soil moisture conditions, yield increases can be dramatic through careful water applications during the most critical plant growth stages.

By watering less, plant roots grow deeper and there is less disease.

Moisture sensors can be used for commodity crop farming, vegetable farming, or orchards.

The probes are made up of multiple soil moisture sensors. They range in price, with the higher priced models generally more accurate.

Some center pivot irrigation systems combine soil moisture sensors with a computer that controls the operation of the pivot.

The University of Nebraska now provides a Crop Water App for the iPhone and iPad based on Watermark sensors from IRROMETER® which are installed at depths of 1, 2 and 3 feet.

32. Good Drainage

Too much water is as great a problem as too little. Good drainage is important in water management because poor drainage leads to soil degradation and salinity which can greatly diminish the yield and quality of most crops. Drainage factors include soil type, compaction, and topography.

Soil compaction reduces the amount of pore space in soils and results in soil that will not drain quickly. This affects plant growth because plant roots require air. Most plants cannot survive for too long under water or in damp soils. Poor drainage causes diseases and root rot. It not only affects the returns to the producer but also can result in increased runoff during heavy rainfall events, therefore increasing water erosion.

When trying to improve damaged land that is saline or waterlogged, moving soil, installing drainage pipes, and mulching can help. Other methods of improving drainage include good crop rotation practices, adding manure and compost to improve macropores in the soil, and reduced tillage.

Chinampas: This farming system is thousands of years old from the Aztecs of Mexico’s lake country. Chinampas are long narrow patches of ground, called “floating gardens”, bordered by canals on each side. Approximately 98 feet by 8 feet (30 meters by 2.5 meters), they are man-made by building up earth during canal excavation through stacking alternate layers of canal muck and rotting vegetation.

33. Agroforestry

Agroforestry, or using trees as part of the agricultural landscape, can improve water and soil quality and reduce evaporation rates. These biodiverse systems have reduced nutrient and soil runoff, or erosion. The trees drop leaves and twigs which improve soil quality so that rainwater infiltrates better. Many crops are shade tolerant. The trees can be trimmed to allow more sun to reach the garden spaces and for use for firewood.

One system of agroforestry mixes livestock with trees and forage. The animals benefit from shade and the trees can provide nuts or timber or fruit.

Intercropping with trees can produce honey, fruits, nuts, maple syrup, medicinal plants such as ginseng, and mushrooms.

As field windbreaks, trees help to control wind erosion, provide wildlife habitat, control soil erosion, and protect livestock.

Although not meant to produce a large amount of a single crop, these systems can provide good yields with a variety of outputs. By mixing trees, shrubs and seasonal crops there is more resilience to insects, diseases, drought, and wind damage.

34. Reduce Food Waste

Food wasted is water wasted and so much more. More than 30 percent of the food produced is lost or wasted. Food waste can be lessened through improvements in every step of the supply chain – storage, transportation, food processing, wholesale, and retail. The consumer must learn to purchase and eat wisely, so as not to waste.

When processed food gets thrown away, all of the water, energy, and labor used to process, transport, refrigerate, and distribute that food was wasted. When fresh produce or meat is thrown away, everything that went into the production and cooking of those foods was wasted.

Some waste in a food system is normal, and it can be put to good use as compost to create rich soils for growing next year’s food. It would be great if all food that is not consumed could be recycled into compost. The “huge” problem of obesity results in the squandering of both food and health.

In the developing world, small, local storage silos can greatly reduce rot, waste, and rodent damage to crops. Refrigeration, improved communication, and distribution infrastructure advancements will also help.

35. Water Conservation Also Means Keeping Our Water Clean and Uncontaminated

What good would it do to conserve water if the water that remains is contaminated?

We must embrace smart practices and have government regulations in place that protect our water from becoming contaminated. Agriculture is guilty of water contamination from unsustainable land overuse practices that result in the runoff of fertilizers, manure, pesticides, soil, and herbicides.

Industrial agriculture runoff has contributed to the Dead Zones in various coastal locations around the world. Here in the U.S., our Dead Zone is located in the Gulf of Mexico and is a hypoxic water area the size of New Jersey. It results from agricultural and municipal waste runoff that funnels into the Mississippi River.

Overuse of nitrogen fertilizer has contaminated large amounts of ground water in regions such as Minnesota, where industrial agriculture is practiced. This has resulted in the loss of safe drinking water from underground wells for the families who live in these areas.

Poor farming practices that lead to soil erosion and harmful chemical runoffs not only degrade the land, but contaminate streams, lakes, and rivers. By nurturing wetlands, keeping waterways natural with buffered areas, incorporating grassy and woody buffer strips into farmed land, and building terraces or contours on slopes, farmers can help to keep their local water clean. By using methods which keep soil healthy — including organic farming, minimum tillage, rotational grazing, and crop rotations — soil absorbs and keeps water pure.

(End of Part 4.)


35 Water Conservation Methods for Agriculture, Farming, and Gardening. Part 1.
35 Water Conservation Methods for Agriculture, Farming, and Gardening. Part 2.
35 Water Conservation Methods for Agriculture, Farming, and Gardening. Part 3.
35 Water Conservation Methods for Agriculture, Farming, and Gardening. Part 4.